Wireless computing can increase your field service revenue and company positioning.

It's been over two years since Mesa Energy Systems, Los Angeles, took a step toward increased profitability by implementing a wireless, Internet-based field service automation software system. Now that the HVAC contracting company has had a chance to settle into its new operations, it's possible to see what the system has done for them. Through the following observations made before and after the transition, you can see just how Mesa's business operations have benefited.

Work-order processing. Mesa wanted technicians to spend less time on paperwork and more time servicing customers. The technicians also needed to have quick access to critical information.

Before implementing the new system, each technician would spend 30 min to 2 hr per week driving to the office to pick up work orders or getting the work-order information and job history from dispatchers by phone.

Since Mesa installed the field service software, the electronic work-order processing and communications systems have eliminated trips to the office and calls to the dispatcher. The wireless system transmits the work order, customer information, equipment data, and job history to the technician's handheld computer (Photo 1 on page 36). Additional information is available wirelessly from the central database.

Response to customer telephone questions.

Before the transition, each dispatcher was spending an average of 90 min per day answering customer questions about service status. Calls lasted from 10 min to 30 min, and in some cases, dispatchers had to call technicians to get information needed to respond to a query.

Mesa wanted to respond immediately to customers' questions with complete and accurate information about the status of the work in progress or work history. In addition, they no longer wanted to have to contact the technician by cell phone or pager before calling the customer back with an answer.

Now, dispatchers look at their dispatch board (Photo 2 on page 41) online to find the status of a work order and the technician assigned to it. Software links the wireless system of technicians to the dispatch screens, which dispatchers can access from any Internet workstation with proper user authorization. Time spent answering customer questions has dropped by more than half, and dispatchers can respond to the customer instantly — without making calls to the field.

Time sheet processing.

The company also wanted to dramatically improve its time card process. Technicians hated completing time cards, and most didn't start the paperwork until Sunday night. Monday mornings brought a deluge of time cards that had to be reconciled with closed work orders.

Each dispatcher was spending more than 5½ hr per week reconciling time sheets, and the technicians spent 2 hr to 3 hr per week filling them out.

With the new system, the computer automatically records time as the technician enters the status of each job. The system generates a time sheet on the handheld PC at the end of each job — smoothing out the workload over the week and increasing efficiency. Dispatchers now spend 3 hr per week reconciling time sheets, and technicians spend about an hour per week preparing them.

Additional repairs.

Technicians needed to alert the company to additional repair opportunities quickly so sales representatives could respond to customers with proposals for additional work — the classic “upsell” situation.

Under the old system, most technicians called the inside sales rep, wrote the request on paper with the intention of turning it in later, but forgot to follow up. The sales rep spent more than 2 hr preparing a quote, and turnaround to the customer was as much as five days. The acceptance rate was 30%, and each technician brought in about $100 a month in new business.

Now, the system requires the technician to log additional work requests, and it automatically transmits them to the inside sales rep for processing. Sales processing time has dropped to 35 min, turnaround is less than a day, and the acceptance rate has risen to 56%. Each technician now develops almost $2,000 a month in new business.

New market development.

Mesa had hopes of supporting national retail-chain accounts but encountered several problems. These accounts demanded same-day notification of completed work, carried a high volume of daily calls on job status, required ready access to detailed jobsite history, and wanted rapid billing.

Mesa was having trouble meeting these business requirements, but with the new system the company meets them all. One year after entering this market, Mesa gained $2 million in revenue from national accounts. The sales reps for this sector promote the wireless and Internet heavily in their proposals.

Cash flow.

In the field service business, the speed of closing out a work order and billing a customer has a huge effect on cash flow.

Mesa's previous business process required technicians to turn in the paper work order before billing could begin. If a technician lost a work order or failed to turn it in, it wouldn't trigger an invoice until internal accounting controls caught up with the problem. If a technician failed to close out a work order or a dispatcher overlooked a handwritten order, that work sat in an “incomplete” status and remained unbilled. The dispatcher also had to check the work order information, key it into the system, and move it to accounting for payment.

All of these problems meant invoices went out later than they should have, choking cash flow. One audit showed that half of all open work orders should have been closed out. Four to six weeks would pass after a job was completed before a bill would go out.

Now, completed work orders are immediately closed because they remain on the technicians' handheld PC screen until closure. Technicians send completed work orders wirelessly to the dispatcher or operations manager for review, and then on to the billing department. Now invoices can be sent within five days of completion — sometimes in the same day.

Lessons learned.

Not only did the conversion to a wireless system improve Mesa's business practices, it taught the company the following lessons.

  • Not all wireless is created equal. Choosing the right wireless carrier, handheld computer, and software are important steps in converting to a wireless field service system. Be careful when deciding whether to use a browser-based system or an application that runs resident on the handheld PC. This a critical decision. How ambitious your transition is will determine which route you should take.

  • Productivity gains are difficult to measure. You can transform your work process with a new operational system, including shifting responsibilities from one group to another. With a wireless system, technicians in the field can capture information once, making it unnecessary for office staff to key it in from handwritten paperwork. More information is also available in a database than in the past.

  • A cultural change accompanies the new system. With a dispatch system where any authorized individual with Internet access can view the information, work that was previously confined to a scratch pad now becomes highly visible.

Johnson is a senior vice president with FieldCentrix, in Irvine, Calif.